Spectator sports are a massive cross-cultural phenomenon in the modern world, from cricket in India to football in Europe and American football in the US. In the middle of the 20th century, commentary on sports was generally found in newspapers that also reported results from the previous day’s games. By the end of the century, many sports television channels arose that provided new venues for commentary and analysis, and the vocation of “sports commentator” exploded beyond simply analyzing the scores. As professional sports leagues became culturally influential, the job of a sports journalist expanded to reporting on what occurred “outside the lines” of the playing field.
On this episode of the Unsupervised Learning podcast, Razib talks to Ethan Strauss, a writer who has covered sports and culture for the past decade, including penning the book The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty. More recently his writing is to be found at his Substack, House of Strauss, which is notable for offering a candid take on the cross-pollination between the broader culture and athletics, notably in the piece Nike's End of Men: Why Nike no longer wants us to Be Like Mike.
The conversation takes some strange turns because Razib has consciously avoided following spectator sports since 2004 when he reflected on how much of his life was wrapped up in tracking his favorite teams. This was before the period that athletes became culturally influential and polarizing, as they transformed themselves into “social media influencers.” Rather than relying on reporters to engage in hagiography, Razib and Strauss discuss a figure like Lebron James, who can alter the tenor of cultural conversation simply through his Twitter account or his feigned reading in the locker room. They also tackle the stillborn globalization of sports, the NBA’s failures in China, and China’s failure to produce top-notch basketball talent in quantity (as well as India’s failure to punch at its weight in world-class athletics).